Knowing Nakai Through his Chinese Education

Poetry Collection by Oshu Sanjin (Nakai Hiromu)

Poetry Collection by Oshu Sanjin (Nakai Hiromu)

According to Ito Chiyu in his work Kaiketsuden, for a brief period Nakai Hiromu studied under the Confucian scholar Hirose Tanso (1782-1856).  I had not heard of this scholar until I read Ito’s chapter on Nakai. When I made a search about him, the Japanese Wikipedia site informed me that Hirose ran a school in Oita prefecture called Kangien (咸宜園), which apparently can still be seen and was once visited by the ex-prime minister Koizumi Junichiro. According to Ito Chiyu, Nakai Hiromu only attended this school for a short period, though he does not give any exact dates. Indeed, Ito’s work is known to be considerably loose on the facts, so whether Ito’s assertion is really true or not I have yet to find more evidence. Nevertheless, it is a fact that Nakai Hiromu was well versed in the Chinese classics as many a samurai elite was in those days, and Hiromu himself was a fairly prolific writer of Chinese poetry.

As I study more in depth the life of Nakai Hiromu, I feel more and more the necessity of studying kanshi/kanbun (Chinese poetry/Chinese writing). Hiromu wrote many poems, some of which can be found in his travel journals, and to really understand the man himself as well as the mindset and the thinking of the many Meiji period elite, an understanding of their educational backgrounds seems vital.

According to many scholars, present and past, there was a growing tendency in the Meiji period for people to look down on the thousands of years of Chinese culture that they had been raised on. This derogatory view of Asian culture is considered to have had an influence on the culmination of terrible atrocities that occurred during the 1930s. Many of the Meiji elite saw the west as the new “master” to follow and wanted to forgot all about their previous Confucian teachings. Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834-1901) and Hiromu’s good friend Inoue Kaoru (1835-1915) are perhaps good examples of this.

Nakai Hiromu however, seems not to have taken this view to such extremes. He recognised the benefits of western culture and recognised that Japan could learn from that, but he does not denounce Chinese learning entirely either. He continued to compose poetry throughout his life and the Chinese classics continued to influence him. In his first travel journal however, he does demonstrate some feelings of despair toward contemporary Chinese due to their weakness in response to western pressure. He laments the fact that China had bowed to western pressure, but he also sees the Chinese example as a lesson for Japan.

Hiromu had many friends and colleagues who were also known poets and Confucian scholars such as Onuma Chinzan (1818-1891), Washizu Kido (1825-1882), Narushima Ryuhoku (1837-1884) to name but a few. In studying Meiji history, to really understand the minds of the people then, I really feel it is essential for me to get a grasp of Chinese learning too. So I have a large task ahead of me. I am certainly glad of those classes I had at Sheffield University in the philosophy of East Asia, but I was only scratching the top of a very large iceberg. There’s still a very long way to go!

It was Hiromu who decided upon the name for the Rokumeikan (known somewhat awkwardly as the “Deer Cry Pavillion” or “Hall of the Baying Stag” in English). The Rokumeikan was of course, Inoue Kaoru’s “baby”, a means of demonstrating to the west that Japan could be civilised too by providing western style entertainment for visiting foreign dignitries. Hiromu, however, took inspiration for the name from a poem in the collection of one of the five Chinese classics, the Shi Jing (詩輕), or Book of Songs (Book of Odes). The poem represents the spirit of hospitality the Meiji government wished to show the west. An English translation of the poem by Arthur Waley is published in his “Book of Songs” (1937):

Yu, yu, cry the deer
Nibbling the black southernwood in the field.
I have a guest.
Let me play my zither, blow my reed-organ,
Blow my reed-organ, trill their tongues,
Take up the baskets of offerings,
Here is a man that loves me
And will teach me the ways of Chou.


2 thoughts on “Knowing Nakai Through his Chinese Education

  1. Waooooooooooo. Eleanor-San is so cool. As I know that the DBS founder Joseph Hardy Neesima knew and wrote Chinese poems very well. Like the origin name of our Kanbaikan, kanbai is a regularly poetry analogy or symbol image which stands for indomitable and strong. Even the ex-chiarman Mao Tse-tung love this kanbai best. lol. Of course he wrote some wonderful poems about this just by the poety view.
    From childhood I get the traditional Chinese poem or books education. I think I can understand Chinese old poems very well. Lol. I’d appreciate for Eleanor’s any question about this.
    Ps: I am too immodestly. Haha.

    • Hi Leslie!
      Thank you for your kind comment. Since I began studying about Nakai, I have become very interested in learning about Chinese poetry. Please teach me about Chinese poetry. Nakai has written many poems in Chinese. It would be wonderful if I could read them properly!
      I am very interested in the Chinese classics in general. I studied a little at Sheffield about different Chinese philosophers and I would love to learn more! It is such a vast subject, but if I could just scratch the surface, I’d be happy!
      I hope things are going well for you at DBS! Ganbatte ne!

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